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Spamalot: A Rip-off, Alright

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I'm sure I am in the minority here.  And I guess it is easier to be in the minority when you know your opinion will have little or no impact on the subject.  But here it goes, anyway.  All three of the other Tony nominees for Best Musical 2005 - Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Light in the Piazza and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - were better than the winner, Spamalot.  There, I said it.

There is much to applaud about Monty Python's Spamalot, which opened last night at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre.  The costumes, the scenery and the cast (for the most part, anyway) are top-notch.  To look at it, you can see why it was named best musical - the costumes, scenery (both by Tim Hatley) and lighting (by Hugh Vanstone) are a traditional Broadway style feast for the eyes.  Then, too, is the delightful choreography by Casey Nicholaw.  And this cast (for the most part, anyway) is truly gifted - they can sing and dance like you wouldn't believe.  And they all pull off multiple characters with such skill that you truly cannot tell the same person is playing different roles; in that respect, they are amazing.  What makes me cringe, though, is the inane material with which they are forced to work.  Interestingly enough, neither the sets nor the costumes won the Tony, but the direction, by Mike Nichols, did.  Far be it from me to dispute the quality of work by a Tony and Oscar winner, but there is such a thing as over directing.  Every single minute of the show is so stagy, so set that not a second of it comes off as even remotely spontaneous.  I wondered aloud (much to the annoyance of the critic seated next to me), "Would they know what to do if even one small thing happened that wasn't planned?"  I fear, the show would grind to a halt.

Ok, so you'll tell me that Monty Python-esque humor is an acquired taste.  Maybe it is.  I like a good fart joke as much as the next Neanderthal - I've even told a few at inappropriate times, but nearly two hours of jokes about knights with flatulence issues, fecal issues, and obvious boob jokes?  I felt like I was at a frat row talent show, and I was the only one there not drunk.  Then, of course, there are also the British/French jokes, the Jew jokes and gay jokes.  None are remotely insulting, none are particularly political, and very few are original.  No harm, no foul. 

I suppose now would be a good time to admit I had exactly the same reaction to The Producers, even with the original cast.  Everyone around me was howling with laughter, and I sat stone faced, giggling exactly twice.  With The Producers, my biggest laugh came from the "Springtime for Hitler" number; with Spamalot, it was the "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" number, which tells of certain disaster when a show hits the Great White Way without Jews at the helm.  Hmm… Nazis and Jews make me laugh… I'll bring it up to my shrink.  As the subtitle of the show says, it was "lovingly ripped off" of the film version.  Suffice it to say, Spamalot has ripped off The Producers (and again with the homage to "Keep It Gay" in "His Name Is Lancelot" - my other prolonged giggle). 

It is when the show sends up other traditions of Broadway that it shows any level of smarts, though Urinetown did it much better a few years ago.  When one of the characters leads the male chorus in a Fiddler on the Roof bottle dance (substitute the Holy Grail for the wine bottles), or in "The Song That Goes Like This" goes all out Phantom of the Opera (despite pleas from the cast to avoid all things Andrew Lloyd Webber - my third giggle) that the show really burns on all cylinders.  It'll be up to you to see what else they've ripped off, but their subtle tribute to Les Miserables (my fourth and final laugh) points out what this all could have been.  Instead, the "book" settles for one shticky routine after another - an extended sequence about coconuts and one about a father who all but ignores his obviously gay son both seem to be ripping off the old "Who's on First?" bit, but both left me cold, and to be honest, kept the audience quiet both times, as well.  Again, if you love this kind of humor in huge doses, go with my blessing.  But if you need some heart and even a glimmer of plot with your fluff, go see Mamma Mia! again.

Ok, nasty critic rant over (for the most part, anyway).  The cast is really the reason to see the show, whether you like the material or not.  They are, by and large, the most talented I've seen at the Hippodrome in some time.  To a person, they are talented singers, dancers and physical comedians.  And their accents are impeccable - most of them do at least three.  Most of King Arthur's knights leaves an impression.  Robert Petkoff is quite humorous as Sir Robin in his number "Brave Sir Robin" and the aforementioned "You Won't Succeed on Broadway."  Sir Galahad, played with mock musical hero gusto by Anthony Holds does well with "The Song That Goes Like This".  It is Patrick Heusinger as Sir Lancelot (and the French Taunter, the Knight of Ni, and Tim the Enchanter) that gets my vote already for best supporting actor of the year.  The man is a chameleon.  You could have knocked me over with a feather when I looked in the Playbill and saw that the same guy played each of those roles.  Remember his name, Baltimore.  He will be a BIG star someday.  Only Christopher Gurr, as the farting knight, Sir Bedevere leaves little impression.  To be fair, he has the least/worst material to work with.  Jeff Dumas, as Patsy, the King's manservant, is a hoot, giving the other really excellent performance.  He creates the one character you have any feeling for, and he manages to find a little heart in this otherwise iceberg cold affair.

The two main roles (if you count billing and curtain calls) of King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake don't come off nearly as well as the supporting cast.  Michael Siberry, as Arthur, seems to be doing his best Sean Connery impression, but he emphasizes Connery's incomprehensibility problems rather than his bravado and sense of adventure.  Siberry is technically proficient - he hits all the notes, does the perfect blocking, etc. - but there is nothing particularly artful about his performance.  If he were an ice skater, I'd give him a top score for technical skills and an average one for artistry.  Pia Glenn, as Lady of the Lake, really has a no-lose role.  She gets to work the audience and she has an act two song designed to put you in her corner ("The Diva's Lament").  Ms. Glenn is also very funny when she sends up every stereotype of a black singer you can think of - her American Idol/Dreamgirls shtick is timely.  But her vocal control leaves much to be desired (maybe she was tired from traveling from the last city) and she really isn't much of a diva.

If we all had the same taste, life sure would be boring.  And Spamalot is not my grail of tea.  Like I said at the start, my opinion will have little if any impact on the show - tickets are scarce for the rest of the run - and it is pretty much critic-proof internationally.  Much has been made of the fact that Spamalot is bringing that most illusive of musical theatre audiences in droves, men, to the theatre.  For my money, you'd be better off going to the local production of The Full Monty - it's at least as manly, twice as smart and infinitely funnier than Spamalot.  And at least there, you get a good dinner with your fart jokes.

PHOTOS: The First National Touring Company of Spamalot by Joan Marcus.  TOP to BOTTOM: Michael Siberry and the Knights; Justin Patterson, Christopher Sutton, Patrick Heusinger and Kevin Crewell as the French guards; Robert Petkoff, Patrick Heusinger, Anthony Holds, Christopher Gurr and Michael Siberry as King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table; Anthony Holds and Pia Glenn as Sir Galahad and Lady of the Lake; Michael Siberry and Jeff Dumas as King Arthur and Patsy.  Main Page photo: Robert Petkoff and company as Sir Robin and His Minstrels.


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